We all have our favorite spots — the places that the kids ask us to take them over and over again. And Howard County seems to have more than its share of beloved family venues, from the Enchanted Forest and petting zoo at Clark’s Elioak Farm to the screaming fun at Terrapin Adventures. But sometimes, you want to avoid crowds and explore somewhere new. It turns out there are plenty of hidden gems to consider.
1. Jackson Pond
If you’ve ever daydreamed about living on an island, check out the little one on Jackson Pond, located in Columbia’s village of Long Reach. This gorgeous oasis is very family friendly, with a playground, fishing, hiking, bicycling and a circular walk around the pond.
Off Tamar Drive between Phelps Luck Drive and High Tor Hill, Columbia
2. Play ’N Learn Playground Superstore
Sure, this is a store selling play equipment, but it’s so much fun they can charge admission. Play on slides, swing sets, trampolines, foosball tables and other equipment. The 6,000-square-foot facility with rubber flooring is ideally suited for kids ages 2 to 8, though there are some infant swings.
Rainy days can be crowded, but on weekdays, families can drop-in to play 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. On weekends, tickets must be purchased in advance, though it’s easy to do online. $8.
9199 Red Branch Road, Columbia
3. Patuxent River State Park
If your kid has graduated from a stocked fishpond or you’re looking for a quiet place to bond, head to the largely undisturbed 7,000-acre Patuxent River State Park for catch-and-release fly-fishing (no bait). Pick a bridge to pull off at any number of intersections, including Hipsley Mill Road, Route 94 or Howard Chapel Road. Get your license online.
Howard-Montgomery county line, between Maryland routes 27 and 9, Woodbine
4. Howard County Table Tennis Center
Put down the video game controller. Try the real version of “Wii Sports Resort” or “PS4 Sports Champions.” Although this warehouse space attracts serious players who are members, lessons are offered for students, and the facility is open to the public for walk-in play. $8 to $10 for up to three hours of table tennis.
9221 Rumsey Road, Columbia
5. Mt. Pleasant farm
Up for a game of SCAG? The combination game — Soccer, Croquet And Golf — is played with a soccer ball, kicked through croquet-style hoops and scored like golf. Or try another classic game like a water balloon toss or egg and spoon race at Games in the Meadow on Sept. 10.
The Howard County Conservancy hosts family-friendly events frequently at both its locations — Mt. Pleasant farm in Woodbine and Belmont Manor in Elkridge. But at Mt. Pleasant, the trails are open daily, and the nature center is open Wednesday through Saturday. (Belmont is open only for scheduled events.)
10520 Old Frederick Road, Woodstock
6. Roger Carter Community Center pool
If you aren’t lucky enough to have a pool in the backyard, there are plenty of places to go for a swim. Some neighborhood pools, such as those operated by the Columbia Association, are open to the public for a fee. But we especially love this county indoor-outdoor pool facility with its retractable roof and splash pad for kids. Plus, it doesn’t close after Labor Day.
3000 Milltowne Drive, Ellicott City
7. Scott’s Cove
It can be a little tricky to find this secluded spot on the Rocky Gorge Reservoir, but you’ll be rewarded with a picture-perfect picnic spot. There are picnic tables and a playground on the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission-owned property.
10972 Harding Road, Laurel
8. Goldfish Swim School
Though lessons are the bread and butter of this brightly-colored, tropical indoor pool facility, where water is a pleasant 90-degrees, “family swim” events are held multiple times per week. It’s a great way to exercise before bed or nap time, and it costs no more than $15 per family. An onsite store stocks goggles, snacks and diapers.
9315 Snowden River Parkway, Columbia
9. Rockburn Branch bike skills park
Kids love the jumps on the circular dirt “Pump Track,” one of seven trails at the park. There are four longer trails with varying degrees of difficulty, and a rocky, climbing trail for most advanced cyclists.
5400 Landing Road (East), Elkridge
10. The Swellness Center
Tired of the playroom at your house? In addition to a change of scene, this indoor play space has educational toys, games and books for infants to 6-year-olds. Drop-in admission is $10. The Center also sponsors occasional “Parents’ Night Out” events.
8940 Route 108, Suite F, Columbia
11. Patuxent Research Refuge
There’s a lot to explore at the 12,841-acre wildlife research facility, but not everyone knows that a portion is open to the public. Look for deer, beaver, great blue heron and more. Hike along trails through woods and along lakes, or take a half-hour guided Wildlife Conservation Tram Tour offered seasonally.
230 Bald Eagle Drive, Laurel
12. The Family Game Store
Maybe it’s time to dust off Monopoly or Clue. Or find a new game or puzzle, perfect for your family. The Family Game Store carries scores of titles, from brand-new releases to hard-to-find imports.
They also host free game nights starting at 6 p.m. on Saturdays.
Historic Savage Mill, 8600 Foundry St., #2008, Savage
13. Columbia Ice Rink
When summer weather becomes unbearable, get out of the sun and get on the ice. Surprisingly, people tend forget about the family friendly Columbia Ice Rink in the summer, when it’s perhaps most refreshing.
5876 Thunder Hill Road, Columbia
14. Alpha Ridge Park observatory
“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” might be a bedtime favorite, but have you ever gotten out a telescope with the kids and looked for Orion’s Belt or a meteor shower? It’s even more fun with the help of local experts. The Howard Astronomical League hosts viewing parties open to public, like those on Aug. 13 and Sept. 10.
11685 Old Frederick Road, Marriottsville
15. Autobahn Indoor Speedway
Once your kids have outgrown the bounce houses and trampoline park, it’s time to race.
Go-karts get up to 50 mph on the Grand-Prix-style indoor racetrack in Jessup. Hard to say who will have more fun— you or the kids.
8251 Preston Court, Jessup